Brushes With Greatness (Chapter 273): The time I was in the same room as Timothy Leary

I actually saw Timothy Leary in the flesh once. It was 1995, shortly before his death. And he was appearing in Berkeley at Tower Records for a book-signing. Or some kind of signing, hawking the latest Leary Product, whatever it was.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Tower Records was there were security guards milling around everywhere. Men wearing shades with walkie-talkies giving hard looks to anyone (like me) who might look a little suspicious. And I wondered if somebody had called in a death threat against Leary or something. And it added this tense vibe to the proceedings, and gave the distinct impression that maybe there were people in Berkeley who did not like Timothy Leary, and who he might need to be protected from.

And there he was, Timothy Leary. Sitting at a long table in the front of the store. With a fairly long line of people waiting in line to get their latest Leary Product signed. Or just wanting a few minutes of face-time with the legend. “Legend of a Mind,” as the song of the day went. “Timothy Leary’s Dead” (well, not quite, but almost). Sitting next to Leary at the table was this hip-looking, attractive young woman, someone one who had that air of Hollywood chic (I assumed at the time that she was his L.A. publicist, but later I realized she was probably the famous movie actress Winona Ryder, who was Leary’s god-daughter. Leary would spend his final years as a part of the Hollywood movie set, a fitting ending for a man who lived out his life like one of those over-the-top Hollywood special effects movies).

One of the first things I noticed as I looked over at Leary. There was no trace of the famous Timothy Leary smile. That mega-smile of “success” that he had constantly flashed across the media for 30 years, as he charmed and bullshitted his way through his life. Leary sat there grim and stone-faced at his table the entire time I was there.

As I milled through the record racks at Tower Records I would occasionally glance over at Leary out of the corner of my eye. His face was drawn and stern and severe, like a skull face, like the face of someone who was in the process of dying from a degenerative disease. Which he was. And I wondered, as he neared the end of his journey, what it had all meant to him now that it was almost over. And I wondered, as he sat there, if he might be having one of his famous “flashbacks,” to almost exactly 30 years ago in 1955 when his first wife committed suicide in a house in the Berkeley hills just a few blocks from where he now sat. Leary woke up one Saturday morning with his tickets to attend the Cal Bears football game at the stadium nearby, only to find his wife in their garage, with all the doors sealed and the car engine running.

Timothy Leary used to say about his legendary first psychedelic trip taking psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico in 1960: “I learned more from that one 8-hour experience than I learned from all my years of studying psychology.”

I used to sort of smirk at that: “Yeah, that’s probably true. But knowing Timothy Leary and what he ‘learned’ over the years, that’s probably not saying very much.”

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